Evaluating: Play Testing the Sleuthhounds Story Board

June 5, 2015

To paraphrase German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke, no software design survives contact with the user. A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the implementation of the Story Board interface in the upcoming second Sleuthhounds demo. Two weeks can make a big difference.

In those two weeks I had the opportunity to perform a first play test of the demo with real players. The Story Board was definitely an area of concern, what with it being a new, untried game mechanic. Watching people play your game is an interesting experience. It highlights all the assumptions you made during development and shows where you missed things.

The Story Board itself worked well and as intended (although one play tester considered it trivially easy, but you can’t please everyone). However, the big problem I noticed that took me back to the drawing board was a matter of direction. Or lack thereof.

In the game, the player has to interview several suspects to amass all the story points needed to use on the Story Board interface. Each suspect has their own Story Board that must be solved. I had set up the suspects so that you would have to interview one to get a little information to interview another to get a little information to interview yet another. I had also set up each of the suspects so that you had to discover a different approach for them to get information. One character you had to flatter, one character you had to rile up, and so on.

It was here that a couple problems arose.

First, players weren’t recognizing that they had to find the right approach for each character. Instead they just ground through all of the dialog options to get information. If they were lucky, they’d randomly pick the “right” options and get the information immediately. If they were unlucky they’d churn through all the “wrong” options. It didn’t matter if it was an experienced player or someone who had never really played games before. Players didn’t stop to think about what choice would help them progress.

Second, players weren’t recognizing the connections between different characters. Instead of following those connections, players would stay with one character until they felt they’d exhausted every option with that character. Since they then had all sorts of new connections it seemed to leave them a little uncertain as to where to proceed next, so they’d just move on to the next physically closest character. It gave players a feeling of a lot of churn with very little progress.

I want to stress here that the players did not get the game wrong. I did.

I firmly believe there is no such thing as “user error” when a person comes to interact with a piece of software, only “designer error.” Any application, whether it’s a word processor, a video editing suite, or a game, needs to communicate to a person how to use it. I very specifically use that word “communicate.”

Very rarely does a person using a piece of software have the designer standing right there to ask questions of. That means that the designer has to communicate their side of the conversation—how the software should be used—entirely through the design. Saying a person misused the software is like saying a person misheard someone who mumbles.

So, seeing that players weren’t interacting with the game in the way that I was expecting, I took a step back and considered how they were really using it and how I could adjust the game. Based on what I saw, people disengaged when they had to actually follow the story. There weren’t clearly marked signs saying “go to this suspect next” or “approach this suspect this way.” In short, there was no direction.

I thought about why people were disengaging. I thought about what I wanted to accomplish by way of story, character, and playability. And I thought about all the discarded ideas for the Story Board that I had previously.

From what I saw, the Story Board interface itself worked as intended. However, the larger problem of direction hampered its use because the Story Board was at the conclusion of learning all of the story points in an undirected environment. It was a hard decision, but I’ve now left the Story Board behind and have put into place a new interface that (fingers crossed) will hopefully provide clearer direction without making the player feel like they are being channeled down one particular path.

But that, dear reader, is a discussion for another blog.